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What Difference Does Anti-Foundationalism Make to Political Theory?

From: New Literary History
Volume 26, Number 2, Spring 1995
pp. 225-237 | 10.1353/nlh.1995.0021

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New Literary History 26.2 (1995) 225-237

Beginning as one of Nietzsche's "unpopular opinions," anti-foundationalism has become ever popular in the modern academy. Stanley Fish, one of the foremost anti-foundationalists, surveys the breadth of its current appeal.

[T]he anti-foundationalist argument . . . has been made in a variety of ways and in a variety of disciplines: in philosophy by Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, W. V. Quine; in anthropology by Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner; in history by Hayden White; in sociology by the entire tradition of the sociology of knowledge and more recently by the ethnomethodologists; in hermeneutics by Heidegger, Gadamer, and Derrida; in the general sciences of man by Foucault; in the history of science by Thomas Kuhn; in the history of art by Michael Fried; in legal theory by Philip Bobbit and Sanford Levinson; in literary theory by Barbara Hernstein Smith, Walter Michaels, Steven Knapp, John Fekete, Jonathan Culler, Terry Eagleton, Frank Lentricchia, Jane Tompkins, Stanley Fish, and on and on.

Anti-foundationalism has most frequently been aligned with pragmatism. Indeed in its contemporary expression, the philosophical lessons of pragmatism are the lessons of anti-foundationalism: As situationally and contextually bound, we cannot obtain a warrant for certitude about our beliefs by basing them on transcendental or metaphysical entities. Of course, this position is not an epistemological claim that there are no transcendental or metaphysical entities -- though it does include a criticism of philosophical positions that lay claim to incorrigibility. For there can be no judgment which is immutable, impervious to changes in context or our description of context. Rather, the truth of a judgment is always susceptible to such changes. Hence, although we can and do make determinate ethical and political judgments, there can be no decontextualized or nonsituational way of doing so.

Some pragmatists, however, have tried to put anti-foundationalism to purposes it will not serve; they have tried to deduce a political theory -- a theory with practical and important consequences for the conduct of political practices -- from anti-foundationalist premises. In the section that follows we will examine the relation between anti-foundationalism and politics. As we conceive of it, anti-foundationalism is a theory about political theory's relation to the practice of politics. This understanding will make clear what political purposes anti-foundationalism cannot serve.

In making this argument, we will continue to rely on Stanley Fish as our guide. Let us begin with his definitions of foundationalism and anti-foundationalism. Fish writes: "By foundationalism I mean any attempt to ground inquiry and communication in something more firm and stable than mere belief or unexamined practice. The foundationalist strategy is first to identify that ground and then so to order our activities that they become anchored to it and are thereby rendered objective and principled" (A-F 342). In contrast, he maintains, "[a]nti-foundationalism teaches that questions of fact, truth, correctness, validity, and clarity can neither be posed nor answered in reference to some extracontextual, ahistorical, nonsituational reality, or rule, or law, or value" (A-F 344).

I. The Politics of Anti-Foundationalism?

From Fish's definitions it should be clear that there simply is no necessary connection between anti-foundationalism and politics. That is, no particular political position, practice, principle, doctrine, set of beliefs, or program follows from taking an anti-foundationalist stance. Stanley Fish is quite clear on this point: "A pragmatist program asks the question 'what follows from the pragmatist account?' and then gives an answer, but by giving an answer pragmatism is unfaithful to its own first principle (which is to have none) and turns unwittingly into the foundationalism or essentialism it rejects."

The question is whether or not, after anti-foundationalism has convinced us that beliefs are language all the way down, there is anything left over in it that points us in the direction of some beliefs rather than others. In other words, is there a "political remainder" left over in anti-foundationalism? We do not believe that there is such a remainder. Anti-foundationalism is just as available to fascists as to Fabians, as open to purveyors of cruelty as to expanders of liberty. But there are many who disagree...


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